Ecology and Socialism

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 90 - October 1989

This article continues FRFI's discussion of the rise of environmentalism and the attitude of socialists to this. ALWYN TURNER raises some of the fundamental questions which the left must deal with. For this reason we are pleased to publish it, although FRFI does not share all of the views expressed.

The seemingly irresistible rise of environmentalism both in Britain and elsewhere, concretised by the Green performance in the European Community elections in June, has thrown all established political organisations into some confusion. The issues themselves are nothing new - ecology has been moving to the forefront of radical politics for two decades - but the last year has seen them gain a new urgency. For many on the Left, the emergence of a radical party to the left of Labour that is capable of gaining a mass vote has offered a temptation to jump the green bandwagon alongside the Tories, the Labour policy reviewers, even the National Front (who now have their own 'ecological' group, Greenwave). Despite all the talk of a new agenda based on green socialism, however, there remains a fundamental and irreconcilable difference of philosophy between ecology and socialism.


That difference lies in the relationship between humanity and nature, a relationship that is critical to both green and socialist ideologies. For some ecologists, 'Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy' (Lynn White Jnr, 'The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis' in G de Bell ed. The Environmental Handbook New York, 1970), drawn from the Genesis creation myth in which God places human beings at the summit of creation, having power over all other life; human society is seen as engaging in a process of moving towards perfection/divinity, a process in which the rest of nature is peripheral. Here, claim ecologists, is the arrogance of humanity which has brought us to the current environmental crisis.

For socialists, however, today's world is the product of a protracted struggle by humanity against the limitations of nature; the relationship is not static - as depicted in Genesis -but dynamic. The critical phase in that struggle came with the development of agriculture, with the conscious attempt to plan for the future provision of food and to reduce the day-to-day pressures of finding sustenance. That phase of development in human social organisation produced, and was strengthened by, a psychological transformation in humanity, evident in the move from earlier religious beliefs in nature goddesses to a belief in gods that transcended and controlled nature. Marilyn French's account of the dawn of agriculture stresses the significance of the idea of control, the assigning of a religious value to a human attribute. The birth of agriculture, she argues, coincides with the birth of male-dominated religion:

'Because women had for millennia been associated with nature, had been seen as having special relation with it to which men were marginal, the new value [of control] gave men a centrality and power they had previously lacked. In addition, since the new god was transcendent, having power over nature without being touched by it, those who worshipped him claimed the same position: as their deity had power over the earth, men had power over creatures of the earth, animals and women. '(Marilyn French, Beyond Power: Women, Men and Morals London, 1986)

The division of humanity between men and women and the power structures that resulted thus reflected the initial decisive split between humanity and nature. Women were perceived as being more 'natural', part of an old order, while men held the hopes of the future and the building of a new world.

Throughout human history, the same division has been mirrored and multiplied - the oppressed have always been projected as being inherently more 'natural' than the dominant forces of society: the forces of progress, of science and of technology. The relationship between humanity and nature thus interacts with the subsequent class and other divisions in society, justifying and legitimising oppression, racism and imperialism.

For greens also, and particularly for deep ecologists, the birth of agriculture is the turning point in human history - the moment when human beings consciously began to assert control over nature, thus denying the essential interdependence of humanity and the environment. The process of destruction may not have begun until the North European agriculture revolution with the move away from scratch-ploughs, but the seeds for the present course of destruction are there in the alienation from nature. It is this that must be combated.

Ultimately, such a doctrine is doomed to failure - it requires an enormous shift in the mass consciousness, a rejection of the unique role of humanity and a denial of the basic human experience of life. Nonetheless, it may in the short term acquire some form of legitimacy which socialists must be prepared to challenge. The division of humanity and nature is a double-edged development, bringing not only the oppression of women and the justification of racism but also the material and cultural benefits that, in a fair society, could enrich the entirety of the human world. The solution to humanity's problems does not lie in the facile dismissal of such benefits, nor can the culture/nature dichotomy be resolved through the exclusive emphasis on natural 'values' on the other hand, does not disown the long struggle against the dictatorship of nature, but instead fights for the unity of all humanity in the continuing campaign for justice and freedom.


But while deep ecology is unlikely to make any long-term progress, the more conventional forms of environmentalism which argue for the safeguarding of natural resources for future generations, are surely going to play an ever more central part in mainstream politics. Such arguments are, of course, to be welcomed, since they are essentially based on the socialist principle of equality, albeit extended to allow for a temporal dimension. And in a genuinely environmentalist politics, this emphasis on equality has a global dimension that has all too often been absent from British socialism.

The current demand for green policies, products and programmes, however, jeopardises the radical edge of environmentalism. The establishment response to an ecology that actually challenges the very foundation of capitalism is to so distort green proposals that, far from environmentalism informing every other area of politics as Greens propose, it is instead broken up and its less controversial and least threatening elements subsumed into the ideal of the free (or slightly regulated) market.

Green politics is no longer an optional extra, but an integral part of giving the capitalist renaissance an acceptable face and thus ensuring its survival.

At its most sophisticated, this can seen in the rise to prominence of John Patten's advisor at the Department of the Environment, Professor David Pearce, with his image of a system in which the environment can be given an economic value, thus allowing one to balance the books between destroying irreplaceable natural assets and the creation of profit - 'We can get a monetary handle on these things.'

And the response from within the Labour Party is similarly to try to neutralise the green challenge without engaging its arguments. The soft Left adopt an attitude of green social democracy, calling for the use of tax reforms as a way of penalising companies and industries that offend against the environment, for central government to take a direct role in the planning of new industries, for trade unions to participate in planning - but all of it within the framework of a market economy, whose existence is unchallenged.

Meanwhile the Labour Left strives establish the connections between environmentalism and pre-Marxist forms of socialism, drawing on, for example, the writings of William Morris and the co-operativism of Robert Owen. In reality, however, the abandonment of the co-operativist option by mainstream British socialism left the nascent green socialist movement to ally itself to the anarcho-pacifist tradition, where it remains to this day: environmentalism has more in common with Tolstoy and Gandhi than it does with any branch of the Labour Party. There no likelihood whatsoever of the Labour leadership abandoning its entire history of centralised bureaucratic industrialism in favour of a libertarian community-based network that would replace the State in a green world. However much the Socialist Conference talks of the need for a new vision of a decentralised, co-operativist socialism, it is clear at the Labour Party is not the means to that end.


Despite the differences that exist between ecology and socialism, it should go without saying that the warnings of impending environmental catastrophe are relevant to everyone, and demand to be given a high priority in any political analysis. Whilst the timescale of the current crisis is unclear (the Friends of Earth were warning in 1969 that humanity had only five years to clean up its act), the issue is clearly pressing. It is not enough to adopt an ultra-leftist position that the environment can only be safeguarded in the context of a socialist revolution either in Britain or throughout the world (the WRP's 'ecology is just a bourgeois diversion'). Equally, however, socialists cannot afford to prioritise environmentalism to the exclusion of socialism (the Communist Party's 'New Fad for the New Times').

The critical question in relation to environmentalist strategy is the role of the State in achieving real change. The Greens are in a contradictory position of believing in the dismantling and decentralising of the State, whilst simultaneously working to try to force concessions from it: thus begging the question of why, if the centralised State can be used as a vehicle for progress, we should seek to remove it? The performance of the Greens in the EC elections is likely to heighten this contradiction; where the Green Party previously could only really be seen as a pressure group masquerading as a political party, the knowledge that it might be possible to achieve some electoral success has held out the hope that political power can be conquered within the traditional structures. Obviously such a task is extremely difficult in Britain's electoral system, but the victory of the Realto wing within die Gruenin indicates the way that Greens here may choose to go alliances and coalitions with mainstream reformist parties in an attempt to wield some political influence may have been ruled out for the present by the British Greens but they are sure to return.

From a socialist perspective, such an approach is doomed to failure since it is based on a false analysis of where power is located in a bourgeois democracy. Once it is recognised that the secret State, operating through the civil service, the military, the financial institutions, the judiciary, industry and the monarchy and justified by the mass media, is the true seat of power, then any pretensions to seek progress through the electoral framework that conceals the State are clearly shown to be futile. The anti-authoritarian side of ecology implicitly recognises this, though its voice is often inaudible in the reformist clamour of those demanding change at any price. Socialists must stand firm on the principle that this State will never be the agent of progress, that it is inherently incapable of reforming itself and that it must consequently be swept away.

But there are areas of common ground that can usefully be explored beyond environmentalism's parliamentary ambitions. The areas for analysis and action that ecology has produced must be taken up.

Socialists must argue, for example, alongside radical Greens, that transnational companies are the major enemies of both the environment and humanity. Even if Britain, either alone or in the company of other West European countries, elected a Green government, its actions would be limited not only by the State but also by the fact that the transnationals would simply export their attacks on the environment in their quest for profits. The exploitation of the South - the effects of which are made visible in both human and environmental terms in single events such as the Bhopal chemical massacre as well as in the continuing deforestation of South America and the Pacific islands - is beyond the control of single governments. If humanity is to survive (let alone progress), it is imperative that the power of the transnationals be destroyed. Here environmentalism can be expanded from its immediate area of concern to merge with the more established Left theme of support for those fighting for self-determination. To take one specific case, the blow that would be struck against the economic imperialism of the transnationals by the socialist liberation of South Africa would have positive ecological as well as political effects.

Similarly the campaign against nuclear power, if put into the context of the wider military-industrial complex, can be a meeting point for socialists and environmentalists in a more powerful way than has existed before. The fight against nuclear power and the exposure of its links with nuclear weaponry, by focussing attention on the influence of the military machine, offers possibilities of reducing its authority to the benefit of the entire world.

Perhaps less obviously, the attacks by environmentalists on the role of the Catholic Church in blocking effective birth control programmes offers the possibility for socialists to broaden the attack into an assault on the reactionary role played by Catholicism throughout the world and an analysis of the role played by superstition in the hindering of social and political progress.

Most importantly, the political establishment must not be allowed to seize the issues of environmentalism. The emerging conventional 'wisdom' is that the real threat to the future of the world comes from developing countries - a racist position being espoused by those who have spent the last decades doing their utmost to exploit the Southern nations. At the same time, the Western establishment is congratulating itself on the rush towards capitalism by East Europe, thus opening new markets for companies eager to offload products considered too sensitive for ecologically-aware consumers in the West.

The connections between cultural, economic and military imperialism and the threats to the environment need to be made explicit and campaigns around the issues built, preferably in conjunction with Greens. The effects could be twofold to develop the public consciousness of the continuing role of imperialism in the world, using current Green awareness as a springboard, and simultaneously to protect and extend the radical perspectives of environmentalism as the lure of power becomes ever more manifest in a drift to the centre.

In other areas, the Left clearly needs to learn from the connections made by the Greens. The fact that it took the Greens to point out the part that the consumption of meat and cash crops played in the exploitation of the South is to the discredit of the Left. It is precisely this ability to link personal action with global concerns that has ensured the relevance of environmentalism and its success amongst radical youth.

It is then crucial for the Left to ensure that the revolutionary implications of ecology are not lost as the mainstream attempts to assimilate the issue. Anti-imperialism, anti-racism and anti-capitalism are all implicit to a greater or lesser extent in ecology, but they are vulnerable in the search for compromise, and are potentially threatened by the Left as well as the Right.

Many socialists, for example, heralded the refusal by dock-workers to handle cargoes of toxic waste as a major victory. Whilst any linking of workers' action with environmentalism is to be applauded, the absence of an anti-imperialist dimension in the wider struggle means that such cargoes are liable to be dumped in southern countries made desperate for foreign capital by the pressures of the international market, but lacking any facility for disposing of the waste.

If the potential of environmentalism to challenge the establishment is to be realised, it is imperative that the Left fights to uphold the basic principles of socialism, whilst seeking to unite the campaign for a sustainable world with the struggle for the emancipation of the international working class. Today more than ever, the old self-serving nationalist tradition of British socialism is no longer simply a millstone around the neck of the British worker but a reactionary and dangerous trend that threatens life throughout the world.  

How the demands of capital denuded Britain of its natural flood defences

All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer.’ Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1

Much analysis of the most recent flooding in Britain – although you won’t hear any of it from the government – has centred on the effects of climate change. And not before time. Long-ignored climate experts have warned for the past quarter of a century that Britain would see more high winds, higher temperatures, dramatic variations in rainfall, and more flash flooding. Indeed, the Met Office confirmed that it was both the wettest and warmest December on record with 351mm of rainfall and temperatures 2.7C above average. A recent study published by Oxford University found that global warming made the floods caused by Storm Desmond 40% more likely.

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Tories can’t hide indifference after Storm Desmond floods

Britain’s increasing vulnerability to extreme weather was exposed in December after Storm Desmond inflicted havoc and misery on tens of thousands of people. Barnaby Phillips reports.

Records in rainfall and river levels culminated in the flooding of more than 16,000 properties in England alone. Many were devastated. Cumbria, parts of Lancashire and the Scottish Borders were the worst affected areas while severe downpours and flooding also hit Northumberland, north Wales and Yorkshire. In Ireland, the worst hit areas were in the Shannon River Basin in the west and Irish midlands. Two people lost their lives, in Cumbria and the Republic of Ireland. In the North Yorkshire village of Newton-on-Ouse, fire-fighters rescued 26 school children by boat from a bus that began to fill with water after being swept off the road. Damage to roads, bridges and buildings will cost millions of pounds and take months to repair.

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Paris Climate Conference: World leaders commit to crimes against humanity

On 13 December 2015 world leaders claimed to have reached a vital and historic deal at the Paris Climate Conference after 195 countries agreed to on-paper commitments to limit potentially catastrophic global warming. In reality, their vainglorious self-congratulation masks a fraud amounting to world-historic crimes against humanity, with the indigenous peoples of the world once again suffering the most from capital’s predatory self-interest. The unexpected headline aim to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade is absurdist hype of the highest order, designed only to burnish the legacies of French and US Presidents François Hollande and Barack Obama. Not only has the first degree already been exceeded, the deal is only legally binding in part and does not kick in until 2020. Vague commitments by rich countries to reach peak emissions by 2030 expose this fantasy figure entirely. The UN’s own research suggests we are on course to emit enough carbon to make a 1.5C rise certain in as little as six years and the dreaded 2C in the next 17-33 years. Even if the pledges made in Paris are fulfilled against all odds, they would only limit global warming to a still disastrous 2.7 degrees. But even that is starting to sound like an outlandish best-case scenario. While claims about the ‘end of the fossil fuel era’ come from the mouths of media pundits who are at best self-deluded, the deal’s final draft does not even mention the words ‘fossil fuel’, ‘oil’ or ‘coal’ – thanks to successful lobbying from private industry which leading governments refuse to tame. On day one of the talks, Australia, one of the world's biggest polluters, refused to commit to reducing fossil fuel subsidies. At least they were honest.

 Hollande hailed the Paris accord as ‘a leap for mankind’ while Obama called it the ‘the best chance we have to save the one planet we have’ and ‘a tribute to American leadership’.

 At face-value, the measures in the agreement include:

  • to peak greenhouse gas emissions ‘as soon as possible’ and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century;
  • to keep the global temperature increase ‘well below’ 2C (3.6F) and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C;
  • to review progress every five years;
  • $100bn a year in climate finance for developing countries from 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future

David Cameron, whose self-acclaimed ‘greenest ever’ government has recently slashed investment in solar power and other renewable forms of energy, said: ‘We’ve secured our planet for many, many generations to come – and there is nothing more important than that.’

But Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, said: ‘It's outrageous that the deal is being spun as a success when it undermines the rights of the world's most vulnerable communities and has almost nothing binding to ensure a safe and liveable climate for future generations.’

Cindy Weisner, national coordinator for Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, was equally damning: ‘What they have done really is signed what we are calling a death warrant for the planet. I think for people they have prescribed a slow death.’

Alberto Saldamando, a lawyer involved with the Indigenous Environmental Network, laid the deal bare: ‘The Paris accord is a trade agreement, nothing more. It promises to privatise, commodify and sell forested lands as carbon offsets in fraudulent schemes. These offset schemes provide a financial laundering mechanism for developed countries to launder their carbon pollution on the backs of the global south. For example, the United States’ climate change plan includes 250 million megatons to be absorbed by oceans and forest offset markets. Essentially, those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it.’

The Indigenous Environmental Network protested courageously in Paris in the face of police repression. Dallas Goldtooth, from Dakota, said: ‘Our communities are facing the reality that we may have to move, that we have winter wildfires happening in the Arctic. We are out of time. Any solutions that do not talk about cutting emissions at the source, or keeping fossil fuels in the ground, are false solutions. We don’t have time to talk about carbon markets, carbon trading, and [fraudulent] REDD+ [reforestation] projects. We must act now.’

James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first brought climate change to the world’s attention in 1988, said: ‘The Paris deal is a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: “We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.” It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned.’

But even this misses the point. Energy companies see investment in the renewables market as an insufficiently profitable prospect, and moves away from fossil fuels – which still supply 86% of the world’s energy – would threaten the solvency of banks and pension funds. With its infinite need to increase productivity, its predatory need to consume territory and natural resources, and its necessary tendency to overaccumulate, capitalism is a runaway train approaching a cliff edge.

In FRFI 248, we said: ‘Without the radical spread of an ecosocialism being fought for by the peoples of Latin American countries, the world will eventually plummet headlong into barbarism. It is clear that the only system capable of marshalling the level of organisation necessary for a sustainable future is a planned socialist economy.’

Bolivian President Evo Morales was one of the few voices to address this reality in Paris. Delivering a manifesto ‘to save Mother Earth and life’, he said: ‘Capitalism has fostered, introduced and driven the most savage and destructive formula against our species’.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa championed an international court for transnational crimes against the environment, but this too was left out of the agreement. Furthermore, the ‘loss and damage’ component, designed to finance the infrastructure that vulnerable countries need to survive a crisis they did not create, fell well short of what is necessary.

ActionAid chief executive Adriano Campolina explained: ‘Developing countries called for a deal which would offer support to people suffering the catastrophic consequences of rising sea levels and soaring temperatures. The US and several other rich countries instead took the opportunity of the Paris talks to deny people this right, putting them at their mercy for dealing with the impacts of climate change.’

He continued: ‘Rich countries must not interpret the long-term goal as a licence to continue polluting, while crossing their fingers that the problem can be solved through false solutions such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, which leads to massive land grabs. That would lead to the world’s most vulnerable people being kicked off their land, infringing their rights and putting food security at risk.’

But it is obvious that the imperialist powers – who industrialised off the backs of their colonies, and now expect the very same former colonies to pay for their emissions – are using climate change as a pretext to justify such attacks on the world’s poorest people. Climate apartheid beckons.

Campolina added: ‘Despite the disappointment, the Paris agreement provides an important hook on which people can hang their demands. As climate change continues to worsen and affect millions more, people are beginning to demand more from their governments and ask for the transformative change to secure homes, jobs and futures. We already have the practical solutions to climate change, we now just need them to be scaled up with adequate support. Paris is only the beginning of the journey.’

Despite the best of intentions this again misses the point. The talks in Paris may have been far more co-operative than previous attempts and the deal may give activists some sliver of legal recourse to challenge broken promises. But against the impending chokehold of the TTIP deal, even this amounts to nothing but more wishful thinking. Even the most charitable perspective can surely no longer maintain any faith in a ruling class thick on hot air and thin on concrete measures. Global warming cannot be prevented without eradicating poverty, and poverty cannot be eradicated without socialism. What is needed is revolution, proletarian rule and central planning. Time really is of the essence.

Barny Phillips

VW emissions scandal – capitalists falsify green reputations

Cheating and fraud have become an increasingly prevalent feature of capitalism in deep crisis, so it will have come as little surprise to readers of FRFI when German automotive giant Volkswagen (VW) was exposed in September to be using special software in its cars to cheat nitrogen oxide emissions tests. These ‘defeat devices’ were fitted to vehicles to keep costs low, and performance high, whilst appearing to comply with environmental legislation. VW, like other corporations, is fighting for market share in a deepening crisis of capitalism. Subsequent revelations about other companies across the automotive industry also cheating in emissions tests revealed the truth of the words of an anonymous investment banker on a secret banking chatroom for the coordination of market manipulation: ‘if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying’.

The VW scandal

In 2014 the irregularity of VW emissions became apparent to researchers at the University West of Virginia who informed US authorities. In May 2015 the California Air Resource Board (CARB) undertook tests and then informed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On 3 September, VW admitted to EPA and CARB that it had installed software to deliberately understate emissions in its vehicles. The EPA and CARB waited until 18 September before going public, coinciding with VW’s launch of its latest vehicle at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt.

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